Science was king when Eugene Chan was growing up. His father, Ka-Kong Chan, an ¿migr¿ from Hong Kong, would bring home ball-and-stick models that represented organic molecules--mementos from his job at Hoffmann-La Roche, where he received 40 U.S. patents as a chemist. Outside the home, however, rampant philistinism reigned. Chan's school environment in northwestern New Jersey had such slim science offerings that by the time he headed for the Ivy League, he had never even heard of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now the Intel Science Talent Search). Nevertheless, the boy propelled himself to become champion in a statewide physics contest in two separate years by grabbing physics and calculus books off library shelves. "I realized I had a lot of ability and didn't need formal training to compete with the best of the best," Chan remarks with characteristic bravado.
At Harvard his autodidactic skills served him well. He gained top honors, eventually graduating summa cum laude in 1996. But he still found enough time to contemplate the germ of an idea for a technology that would build on the scientific findings of the Human Genome Project, then in its middle phases. "Is it possible for us to gain complete sequence information from every single person on the planet?" he recalls wondering.
This article was originally published with the title Thinking Big.